John Wilmot Portrait – 2

Portrait of John Wilmot, 1812

I went to New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University, to see the Portrait of John Wilmot and hear a lunchtime public talk by a student gallery guide, Adam Chen. He described the representation of Wilmot as Commissioner for compensation for British losses in the American War of independence up to 1783. The portrait is hung in the Long Gallery at the Yale Center for British Art. Opposite, looking across at it, is a full-length portrait of its painter, Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy of Arts.

I was able to read correspondence between the painter, West, and the sitter, Wilmot, that are held at Yale Library. Wilmot didn’t want just a portrait for his family, but rather a celebration of the loyalty of those British subjects who remained loyal to the Crown rather than join the American revolution. West, originally from Philadelphia, who had become the Royal History Painter, responded with the portrait and allegory in one painting (January’s blog).

Frontispiece by Benjamin West to Wilmot’s Historical View of the Commission

The engraved Allegory (above) became the frontispiece to Wilmot’s book about the Commission . It was called ‘an outrageously self-serving fiction’ by Simon Sharma, in his book Rough Crossings about the experience of British blacks after Independence, because Britain did not give financial compensation equally to the different groups represented in the picture. Yet from the West/Wilmot letters, the picture’s purpose was to show loyalty rather than compensation: West brought women and children, commoners, blacks and a Native American all into the picture.

Wilmot’s portrait has a parallel with contemporary history. In 2019, Britain had a (non-military) rebellion against the European Union, the vote for Brexit. The ‘Remainers’ in Britain, and also those living in other European countries, feel let down by politics in the same way as the loyalists were. This time, there’s no financial compensation being voted by Parliament. Yet it’s unlikely that the President of the Royal Academy will make a portrait of Sir Kier Starmer, who led the Labour party opposition within Parliament; it is more likely that the losers will be forgotten.

West’s portrait of Wilmot has much British political history in it. It is sad that it was sold to Paul Mellon in 1970 and moved to America, rather than being in the London National Portrait Gallery. But there’s a small story to give a smile. The American State Department asked Mellon if it could be loaned the picture for its Diplomatic Reception Rooms.1 They believed – because of misattribution in the Auction catalogue – that the picture was ‘another version’ of Signing of the Peace between Britain and the United States that West had painted in 1783. But the Portrait of John Wilmot is a strong statement of loyalty to King George III – hardly the symbolism for the US Diplomatic Reception Rooms.  

1 Correspondence held at the Yale Center for British Art  

John Wilmot portrait – 1

The portrait of John Wilmot (1750-1815), painted by Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy, in 1812 hangs in the Yale Center for British Art at Yale University, New Haven, USA. There’s to be a talk about the picture at Yale next month.

Portrait of John Wilmot by Benjamin West, 1812 (Yale Center for British Art, USA)

The portrait was one of West’s only two paintings at the 1812 Royal Academy exhibition and was noted for including history (the Allegory of Britannia welcoming American Royalists) as well as the person of Wilmot. How the painting was first made, and what happened to it between being shown in 1812 and being sold at auction in London in 1970, are open to discussion.

The Wilmots, lawyers and back-bench politicians, had connections with the Camden Town estate. John Wilmot (or as he became John Eardley-Wilmot) was known to Joseph Kay, the Camden Town estate’s main architect, through shared connections with the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury.

Sir John Wilmot had followed Sir Charles Pratt (as Lord Camden was once) as Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. John Wilmot’s son, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, 1st baronet, and then his son, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, 2nd baronet, were both friends of the Pratt family – there’s correspondence in the Pratt family archives, showing they visited each others’ houses in Malvern and Sevenoaks respectively.

These connections may explain the naming of Wilmot Place, a turning off St Pancras Way near Camden Road. Otherwise, it’s an anomaly – almost the only street not named after the estate’s original landlords, the family of the Lords Camden or the prebend of St Paul’s Cathedral.

1843 map showing origin of Wilmot Place

Two alternative explanations of why the road was named Wilmot are probably false – that it was the John Wilmot poet, Lord Rochester of the seventeenth century (who has no historic connection) or that it was the local builder (who was actually George Lever).